Campus Life

Trapped in Paradise

Travels in Cuba

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Charlie Zien ’10 poses in front of one of the many jalopies that line the streets of downtown Havana on June 29.
Courtesy of Charlie Zien

“I need to use the phone,” I told the man behind the front desk of the Havana hotel where I was staying. “Sir, it’s $2 a minute to call the U.S.” I had $5, enough for a 2.5 minute call home (or to eat that night). “This is an emergency!” I screamed, “Now let me use the fucking phone!”

“Not my problem,” he responded. “You have to calm down or I’ll have you sent to the immigration detention center.” I had no idea what to do at this point, but I knew a trip to the detention center would not solve my problem.

This summer, I participated in MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives), a program that sets up MIT students with internships in foreign countries. Having a tenuous yet passable grasp of Spanish, I decided on the MISTI-Mexico program.

As a U.S. passport holder, I am fortunate enough to have access to practically every country in the world. But I’m notoriously hard to satisfy, so I decided to go to one of the few countries that is not accessible from the U.S., but is easy to reach by way of Mexico City — Cuba.

Because of the U.S.’s trade embargo, my American bankcards would not work in Cuba and I would have to bring all my money ahead of time in pesos.

Knowing this, I asked my travel agent how much she recommended I bring. She told me Cuba was much cheaper than the U.S. (and Mexico), and that I should be fine with about $150 for four days of travel (I paid for my hotel ahead of time). Had I known then what I know now, I would have brought a lot more.

Soon after my arrival, I found out that my travel agent had misinformed me. Turns out Cuba has two different types of money — native money and tourist money. While Cuba may be cheap for Cubans (okay, not really — Cubans only make about $15 a month), prices in tourist money are about what you would expect in Boston.

Now, anybody who has been a tourist in Boston knows that $150 to pay for food, transit, and tourism for four days is a very short leash (and you can forget about bringing back any cool souvenirs). So I resigned myself to a budget trip — not what I’d had in mind considering the fact that this was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. But I didn’t let this minor detail interfere with an otherwise great trip. By the end of the trip I was satisfied, exhausted, and completely broke, save for the $5 I had in my pocket. It was then that I found out about the $25 departure fee required to leave the country. In other words, I was trapped in Cuba. I spent that night running around the hotel, frantically trying to figure out how I could escape Castro’s grips.

My guardian angel came in the form of a bus driver. He informed me that while the U.S. and Cuba do not maintain diplomatic relations, we do have a consulate in Havana. The bus driver took pity on me and offered to take me to the consulate, which was on his route, for free.

After a ten-minute scolding from the U.S. consul, I was able to contact my family, who wired some money to the State Department in Washington, which was then forwarded on to me in Havana. Relieved, I went to the airport, paid my $25, and was on my way.

So, what did I learn from this? Well, not much. Despite the fact that getting stuck in Cuba was one of the scariest experiences of my life, I have no regrets. I am one of the few Americans who can say he has been to Cuba, which is awesome in its own right, but, more importantly, I have a great story to tell my grandchildren.

These types of surprises, good and bad, are what make travel so exciting for me. While not everyone has the good fortune of being trapped in a country with a communist dictatorship, traveling is guaranteed to bring about a meaningful experience … in one form or another.